Thursday, May 13, 2021

Gypsy moths: The destroyers

Gypsy Moth CaterpillarLike a B-grade horror film sequel, the aliens have awakened once again. Perhaps we felt a glimmer of hope at the end of the 2020 version when an entire generation of ruthless monsters died off in droves and left us in peace. But remember that closing shot of their disgusting, furry egg-mass blobs cleverly hidden out of sight? Well they’re hatching now.

If you missed last year’s gypsy moth performance, you have a better chance of catching it this season. Unfortunately. Based on egg-mass sampling, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation predicts that areas in central and western NYS which saw moderate to severe gypsy moth outbreaks last year can expect heavy damage this year. NYSDEC’s gypsy moth page can be found here.

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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Long eared owls always look surprised

Long Ear OwlOwls are birds of prey of the order Strigiformes, which are divided into two main families. Strigidae has 220 wide ranging species, for example round faced owls filling all possible sizes between the great horned owl and the elf owl. Tytonidae has 20 species, distributed worldwide everywhere but the polar regions and northern regions from Canada through eastern Russia, for example, heart faced owls like the barn owl.

Eight owls are found in the Adirondacks: Snowy owl seasonally, Great Horned owl, Barred owl, Long eared owl, Short eared owl, Barn owl, Eastern screech owl and Northern saw whet owl, all year-round residents.

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Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Saw whet owls: A shrew’s nightmare

Saw whet owls appear nearly as strange as their name sounds. At seven to nine inches long, weighing in at two to six ounces, with a stubby wingspan of sixteen to nineteen inches, saw whets are the smallest owl in the Adirondacks, though surprisingly not the smallest in the world, coming in at twice the weight of the insect eating elf owls of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. As with other raptors, female saw whets are larger than males.

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Monday, April 26, 2021

Hey bugs! Fear This!

colorado potato beetleNo offense, but Franklin D. Roosevelt should maybe bug off with his assertion that “…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” because fear is good for gardeners and farmers.

According to entomologists Nicholas Aflitto and Jennifer Thaler of the Cornell University-based New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (NYSPIM), it can be harnessed as a weapon against destructive pests. Turns out it’s possible to scare harmful insects out of gardens and crop fields.

Ascribing human feelings to bugs may be a stretch, but if something makes the critters run away and hide, it seems fair, not to mention simple, to call that fear instead of “a consistent generalized avoidance response in reaction to certain stimuli” or some such thing. After all, it took biologists a few hundred years to establish that various animals from elephants to birds and turtles really and truly play, and for no other reason than to have fun. Perhaps one day we’ll figure out that invertebrates have emotional lives, too. I suppose that might raise ethical issues around pest control, but let’s not go there just yet.

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

Brood X – The Emergence Has Begun 

molting cicadaBrood X is coming. In fact, by many accounts the invasion has already begun. The emergence of Magicicada septendecim; a species of 17-year periodical cicadas; the largest periodical emergence of insects on Earth.

    Periodical cicadas are large, fat, dark brown, flying insects averaging about 1 1/2 inches in length, with a 3 inch wingspan. Pigmented veins form a noticeable ‘W’ on the outer end of their front wings. Their eyes are bright red.

    Different broods of periodical cicadas emerge at different intervals. Some appear annually, some at 2 and 4 year cycles, others every 13 or every 17 years. According to Jody L. Gangloff-Kaufmann, a Cornell Entomologist working in community (non-agricultural) integrated pest management (IPM), Brood X (broods are labeled with Roman numerals), sometimes referred to as the Great Eastern Brood, “is one of 15 broods of periodical cicadas that appear regularly throughout the eastern United States.” Each one is distinctly different.

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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Samurais and Stinkers

Adult male stink bugIn general I’m rather positive about immigrants, but not the six-legged kind. Many of the insects which have made themselves at home here over the past few decades show up with interesting and colorful names like emerald ash borer, velvet longhorned beetle, and spotted lantern fly. Amusing monikers or not, this is a ménagerie of mischief-makers, and one of the more recent arrivals is quite a foul character indeed.

Native to eastern Asia, the brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys), or BMSB to its pals, made its North American debut near Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1998. The BMSB sucks the life out of many fruits and vegetables with a stout, straw-like rostrum or beak, leading to heartbreak for home gardeners and severe economic losses for commercial growers. Not only is the BMSB hard to control with pesticides, it has no effective enemies here, and as a result its populations can build up rapidly under the right conditions.

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Sunday, April 11, 2021

Barn Owls: The Ghostly Rodent Destroyer

Barn OwlHow do you describe Barn Owls? To begin with, what birds are stranger than owls? The oddly inelegant shape, the seemingly humorless and serious demeanor, the hostile and insistent beak snapping, the strength all out of proportion to their sizes?

And then there is the barn owl, with that heart shaped, almost alien, face, the head wagging when surprised or threatened, the long, gawky legs, and that arrestingly loud, drawn out and raspy hiss, like a cobra with a microphone.

Barn owls are a weird and fascinating species, even within the ghostliest of raptor orders, Strigiformes. The Martians have landed, and they have come for your rodents! In an interesting observation, the Carolina Raptor Center, speculating on the origin of ghosts and goblins in people’s minds, and mindful of the link between old barns, church steeples and agricultural fields, in other words, the proximity of villages to barn owl nesting sites, wonder whether the ghostly appearance, odd hisses, screeches and screams of the barn owl, helped foster such nightmares.

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Be on the Lookout for Amphibians Crossing the Road

wood frogWith the arrival of spring temperatures, amphibians have begun their annual migrations to woodland pools to breed. Often, they must cross roads to reach these pools. In New York, this migration usually occurs on rainy nights in late March and early April, when the night air temperature is above 40F. When these conditions exist there can be explosive, “big night” migrations, with hundreds of amphibians on the move. Volunteers can help document these locations and help amphibians like wood frogs, spotted salamanders, American toads, or spring peepers safely cross the road. Drivers on New York roads are encouraged to proceed with caution or avoid travel on the first warm, rainy evenings of the season. Amphibians come out after nightfall and are slow-moving; mortality can be high even on low-traffic roads.

Photo of wood frog by Laura Heady.


Monday, April 5, 2021

Who cooks for you, barred owl?

barred owlThere are many species of owls in the Adirondacks, with barred owls being the most common, and the most frequently seen.

We mainly hear owls calling between Autumn and early Spring. Great Horned Owls nest earlier than other owls, and their deep staccato HOO-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO call, sounding most like the stereotyped call we associate with owls generally, is resonant and vaguely threatening.

The Long-eared owl, which resembles a smaller, perpetually startled and skinny great horned, has a call which reminds you more of song bird calls, stretched out with longer pauses between notes, which may be single syllable “ooo” or raspier pleas, sounding almost cat like. Screech owl calls are shrill and loud, sharp and abrupt. If you ever watched the comedy “My Cousin Vinny”, there is a funny scene where the Joe Pesci character, surprised by a screech owl’s scream in the dead of night, runs out of the cabin firing a pistol, followed by a close up of the screech owl. Tiny saw whet owls make a “toot-toot” call, like a small truck backing up. 

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Thursday, April 1, 2021

Native bees make due with honeydew

aphid honeydewMarch 21st marked the first day of spring and here in the mountains the warm early spring temperatures have begun to prompt the native bees to wake from their hibernation.  Like many creatures, most native bees store up food during the warm months in preparation for a cold long winter.

The first thing waking bees do is perform a cleansing flight, they expel any excrement that has accumulated during their winter’s rest.

The next thing they do is search for food.  Its not hard to see that there are no trees and flowers in bloom as the snow begins to melt and once again bare ground is exposed.

So what do these amazing little creatures do to survive until blossoms appear?  Unlike colony-building honeybees, solitary bees don’t stockpile honey for times when blossoms are scarce.

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Monday, March 29, 2021

Flea beetles: Be ready for action when they pop up in your garden

flea beetleDespite the frigid weather that recently swept across the United States, gardeners are busily planning for the growing season. In the Adirondacks, the stakes are high for gardeners; a shorter growing season is made more urgent by frequent flea beetle attacks. The purpose of this article is to discuss these insects, share information about control measures, and reflect on one potentially positive aspect of living with these insects. 

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Sunday, March 28, 2021

Species Spotlight: the Northern Cardinal

male cardinalThe Northern cardinal is a fairly large, long-tailed songbird with a short, very thick bill and a prominent crest. Male cardinals are brilliant red all over, with a reddish bill and black face immediately around the bill. Females are pale brown overall with warm reddish tinges in the wings, tail, and crest. They have the same black face and red-orange bill.

The male cardinal will fiercely defend its breeding territory from other males. When a male sees its reflection in glass surfaces, it frequently will spend hours fighting the imaginary intruder.

Photo of male Northern cardinal by John Mack/DEC


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

As the temperature heats up, so too does the activity of woolly bears

Woolly BearAs the old saying goes, “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” During this transition, overwintering insects begin to reanimate. One insect that will soon regain mobility is the woolly bear, Pyrrharctia isabella Smith (Lepidoptera: Erebidae). The life cycle of this insect is complex, but if it is properly understood, then lepidopterists will have a much better chance of seeing one in the wild. 

The woolly bear overwinters as a larva. As the temperature gets cooler, the woolly bear larva will bask in the sun, using its dark coloration to gather heat. When the autumnal temperatures drop too low for basking to be sufficient, woolly bears ensconce themselves in leafy detritus. Snowfall serves to further insulate the moth from biting winter winds. Woolly bears are further protected by the chemical glycerol, which is produced by their bodies to protect them from extreme cold. This chemical is found in some antifreeze brands, and can be used in cars. Through strategic selection of overwintering sites and the use of glycerol, the woolly bear can survive temperatures as low as -60 oF.

Their survival can be put at risk if they are brought out of dormancy by unseasonal warmth, because they stop producing the chemicals necessary to protect themselves. Therefore, if a woolly bear is encountered in the wintertime, it is recommended that nature enthusiasts leave it alone.

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Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Tree Buds: Honest Friends

winter treesHow to distinguish one leaf-bereft hardwood from another in winter is more of a challenge than summer tree ID, but there are practical reasons – and a few offbeat incentives – to tell one species from another in the dormant season. Hikers and skiers can benefit from such a skill, and in survival situations, hydration and warmth may depend on it. And if you’re among those who adore wintertime camping, you can have more fun when you know common woody species.

In late winter/ early spring, a pathogen-free beverage flows from sugar, silver, and red maples when temperatures rise above freezing in the day. A bit later in the spring yet prior to leaf-out, our native white (paper), yellow, black, grey, and river birches yield copious, healthful sap as well. The same can be said for wild grape stems, although it’s crucial that one can recognize other vines out there like Virginia creeper and poison ivy.

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Sunday, March 14, 2021

All about osprey: Widespread, prehistoric, fish eaters

OspreyThe osprey is second only to the peregrine falcon, as the most widely distributed bird of prey in the world, found on every continent but Antarctica, while picking up regional names like fish hawk, fish eagle and seahawk. There are probably half a million osprey globally, and osprey are one of the clearest indications of the health of any shallow fresh, brackish or saltwater habitat.

Like eagles, osprey are generally monogamous and tend to use the same nests year after year, so a successful osprey family indicates lots of fish, and since osprey are not as rigidly territorial as some other predators, the more osprey nests a habitat supports, the more likely the general health of the ecosystem is good. 

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